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Monday, August 19, 2013

As a child I really could not run. I didn’t know why. I was healthy, limber, and lively. I could climb trees and walk all day long.
But I could not run. I would get low scores in the physical fitness tests at school because I couldn’t run. The gym teachers though I was lazy. I could not keep up with my older sister on a bicycle ride either
Anytime that I engaged in any sustained intense activity I would get out of breath, my chest would feel tight, my heart thump in chest, and my mouth would feel hot inside. I never knew that this was an oddity, really. I never made a big deal about it. I did not have asthma. I had no diagnosis from any doctor to indicate that there was anything wrong with me physically, I had regular check-ups throughout my entire childhood, my healthcare was not neglected. I thought I was just a wimp.

As I grew a little older I realized what I was feeling wasn’t normal, but yet I still thought I was just “frail”. After all, I could do no cardio and got sick with every bug that came around. When I was 19 I went for a regular checkup. Off-handedly, almost, the doctor mentioned that my heart had a slight murmur. A heart murmur is an extra or unusual sound heard during the heartbeat. The manner in which I was informed did not seem to be anything alarming. In fact, the doctor seemed unconcerned. This slight mention passed from my mind as, at age 19, I had a good many other things on my mind.

A year later, after moving to another state, I saw a different doctor. She, too, heard and remarked on the murmur. This doctor on the other hand seemed quite concerned. The murmur was loud and forceful. She urged me to see a cardiologist to find out why. She told me it might be nothing more than a misshapen valve, but that I absolutely needed to be sure. I have an intense phobia of invasive procedures, but her level of concern was enough to galvanize me into action. Over the course of eight to ten weeks, several cardiologists, many echocardiograms & various other tests later, frustratingly, I still had no answers. Finally I went to Johns Hopkins Hospital. “This is the last one”, I told myself. “I am sick of all of this. “ One last echo, that's all. They found the answer. An answer that shocked me and a remedy that scared me to death.

I was diagnosed with a birth defect known as Atrial septal defect, ASD. In simple terms there was a hole between the chambers of my heart. The ASD caused my oxygen-rich and unoxygenated blood to mingle instead of remaining in their separate networks. In short, my blood was not being oxygenated properly, my heart was overworking itself with ever increasingly inefficient results. The only solution in my case was open-heart surgery to repair the hole. The hole was small, but present, and not considered immediately urgent. So, because my ASD wasn't deemed an emergency, as well as in order to give me time to seek counseling for my phobias, we scheduled the surgery for a couple of months later. By my next follow-up they made another alarming discovery. The hole in my heart was getting bigger. Fast. After 20 years of compensating for this defect, my heart had had enough. My surgery was moved up. The operation couldn't wait any longer than two week. The hole in my heart was described to me in comparison to coins. From originally being the size of a dime, it had expanded, I would later find, to the size of a quarter.

The operation was expected to last 2-3 hours. It lasted 5. Afterwards, my surgeon told me that by the looks of things, I probably would have died in another 2-4 weeks, had the defect gone untreated. They had saved my life, and only just in time. After a long and difficult recovery, I can truly say I am blessed to be alive.

I promised myself to always value my health and the life that had been given back to me. Life however, has it’s up and downs. I have not always been the best steward of my body. I have struggled with obesity and spent years on the diet roller coaster. 5 years ago, with encouragement, I started trying to jog, and I was amazed that I could! For the first time in my life I was running. Yes, I was out of shape, but it did not hurt. My breathing was heavy, but not painful, and my heart rate high, but not erratic.

I wondered if I could someday manage a 5k. At this point in time I could run one minute out of five, at best. I put the idea on my bucket list. I promised myself I would do it "someday."
Once again life got in the way, I fell off the fitness wagon and regained the weight I had been steadily losing.

Two summers ago I lost one of my best friends to a heart attack. He was only in his early 40s. We had many of the same bad health and dietary habits. Especially a love of decadent food and drink. At his death, I was scared and determined to get myself healthy again. I retrained myself to eat more sensibly, and started exercising again. As a member of my company's safety committee, I helped institute and participated in a walking challenge and weight loss contest. In total, I lost more than 30 lbs. I had more energy than ever.

I decided this spring that 2013 was the year. I registered for the Run or Dye in Dover, DE, with the president of the company I work for personally acting as my sponsor. My best friend JAHINTZY decided to join me! I intensified my training. I set a goal to be able to run the full distance in 35-40 minutes. At least this first one, anyways. Three weeks before the run, I badly twisted my ankle, but I was determined that while this might slow me down, it would not stop me.


August 17, 2013; Race Day. It was an unseasonably cool and beautiful August morning. The Run or Dye promises to be the most colorful run of all, and it delivers. Many people were decked out in bright or silly clothes and a generous amount of colored powder was distributed to the participants and volunteers. Because the Run or Dye 5k is not a race, the organizers would not have any official timekeeping, so I brought my own stopwatch to track my pace. JAHINTZY and I lined up in the staging area and were in the 3rd wave of runners to leave. I started my stop watch and took off. JAHINTZY and I had agree to each go our own pace and would rejoin after we finished.

I really can’t say how it happened. I just kept running. A few times I had to slow down to power walk, but once I got my breath back I would take off again. There were no mile markers and I refused to look at my stop watch until I finished, so as not to know how far I had come, or how much was left. I just kept running. I tried to keep my pace down so I would have enough stamina to finish.

When I finally got to the end I was out of breath, sweating, and covered in colored powdered dye! My heart rate was up but my chest didn't hurt. My breathing was heavy, but I was not gasping for air. Wow. As I made my way towards my mother I fished my stopwatch out of my shirt and pressed the stop button. When my eyes finally focused on the numbers I burst into tears of joy and disbelief. 33min 14sec! My run was more than three and a half minutes quicker than my fastest practice run, far faster than my goal time! All I could do was speechlessly show the stopwatch to my mother, who had helped nurse me back to health after my surgery. She too, happily broke out in soggy eye-ball syndrome. She grabbed me and held me in an embrace of her own joy, amazement and love.

I did it! From the girl who couldn’t keep up, to my first 5k! I cannot express the pride and gratitude I felt.
I am Healthy!

I still have further to go on my fitness journey. A little more weight to lose and a few more miles to run. I know I will have to remain ever vigilant and guard my health. I swear I will. I will never forget how much this moment meant, how difficult it was to get there and how incredibly worth it, the journey, was.

Thank you for allowing me to share my story with you.

Many children and adults die every year from undiagnosed heart defects. I am lucky not to be one of them.

My mother once told me that as a baby, my doctor had heard and informed my mother about my heart murmur. It was no big deal, he said, many babies have them and outgrow them. There was no follow up. There was not even a suggestion of a follow up. Today, there are organizations working hard to increase awareness of congenital heart defects and urge doctors towards better testing and follow-up care. It is my wish to encourage parents to follow up and research any cause for concern when it comes to their children's hearts and health, as well as their own.

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(story edited on 08/20/13 for clarity of content, details, and grammar)
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